Parties Everywhere

<< Revenant Faith and Foreign Pilgrimage

“When outputting individuals to the wider gem, it’s troublesome on every level. You have those who want to live like they’re in the facetary territories, and who need to be educated. You have those who want to cause trouble, where – depending on the trouble in question – they could need watching, or detaining, or… nothing at all. You have those who are ambivalent. You have those who are angry with their lot in life. You have the patently weird. No matter what you do, you will be hurting or inconveniencing some person who more desperately needs those opportunities you dole out. The goal’s to make sure you inflict as little lasting harm as you can. Heaven doesn’t have enough room for everybody. I wish it did, though; Allah, I wish it did.”

-Anecdotes of Rhaagm Immigration, Emigration, and Citizenship: Case File – Mnetalie Yiayu

“I cannot believe nobody mentioned this. I don’t care how taboo it is, the odds of nobody giving the slightest hint something this elaborate was coming for this long are… very, very low.”

As his sleeves ruffled against the stiff wind, Ktsn watched her companion’s flamboyantly membranous demonstrations. It was clear that the brief calligraphic smear of each turn of the head or leap of the wrist was performed with an audience in mind. It was not clear if that audience was her, or the eventual consumers of the Journals of Gem Pioneering, or himself, or some other party.

They needed to visit a few by-the-wayside locales, and pick up some payments and commission orders. Partly a ready excuse, partly work that actually needed doing. They’d eventually leave the city. Passing in the direction of the house upon which Eihks had spied, they’d have an opportunity to scope out their mystery guest. Assuming she was there.

This aim was both aided and hindered by the ebbing-flowing traffic.

Ktsn felt a bit woozy.

As they left their shop behind, the pair sank into a screeching somatosensory dream of color.

The White Fields, according to their host and employer and conspirator and whatever else she was turning into, constituted a monumental holiday. The festivities would last until either the night after the first blossom of the “guyyund” flower or they ran out of dye for ornaments. To prepare for the observance before the first day would dishonor the dead, rather than exult them. Even speaking about it was an edgy indulgence.

So until the conclusion, every person from eldest to youngest would spend hours and hours making special confections and decorations, spreading them around buildings and roads, giving them away, trading them, embracing a spirit of ritual and genuine fun. Crowds clotted many streets to the point of being impassable. Poles and staves hung crooked as gamblers’ fingers, strung with papyrus and similar substrates stained in black and green and red. Every other door boasted a hoop of woven stems, their middles filled with pretty asymmetric patterns representing the rubric of the human body.

Refrains crept around each corner and square. The festivities aroused a caroling spate running the span of a double handful of songs. These graced every street of Ronnin-Sōlsig-Adur. They were imposing despite their simplicity, and oddly symphonic when they crossed each other. Many times, that odd fusion was its own song.

The work invigorated by that song draped a certain person from Goskec Tktl in wan illness and confusion.

She saw one of those wretched places coming by the wayside as they tried to weave their paths through the hard press. A “mausoleum.”

It wasn’t the single biggest surprise she’d gotten in recent times, but it qualified among the most bowel-wrenching. Here she’d been, sleeping days on end and just going about her business, living in the company of abject savages without knowing it.

Gegaunli, but even the broken heretics who followed Taralngegeshet didn’t go this far. The people of this place actually dedicated whole buildings for the blasphemy of hiding bones away. It was… indicative that she ought to have questioned Eihks more on certain points.

Something her human companion identified as a casket crawled on servile bodies’ legs, down into the hidden belly of that hungry monster. A smoky rusted snarl raised its head in her soul. She didn’t chase after the group and destroy the casket, but she had to actively restrain herself.

After a few minutes of weaving through the mass of people, they reached the first stop on their circuit around the city. A man with a long beard and a melted fleshy terminus instead of a foot wheezed his greetings to the pair of them. A few sheets got a once-over to verify details. The parties traded a small sack of down-payment and many words. The coins got tied to Ktsn’s middle. In exchange, the man got assurance that he’d receive a fleet of the most comfortable chairs ever made.

Eihks said when he could expect the first of them to arrive. Ktsn didn’t hear him. He looked over at her after a few seconds, lips going flat.

“I should have mentioned something about death-related customs earlier,” he said aloud in Rhaagmini on their way to the next stop.

The karkshesh didn’t deign to acknowledge him.

“It’s one of several variants practiced by many people. A lot of species didn’t historically have techniques as developed as yours for sanitizing remains. Burial and interment are relatively healthy solutions to the issue of postmortem dispensation.”

A dust cloud crossed their path, kicked up by screaming urchins and a small squealing greased animal. They watched it shred in the fitful wind.

“Sometimes these sorts of observances spring from ideology or faith. Others are a matter of more mundane tradition. ‘Our forebears buried their forebears, so shall we,’ and so on.”

Ktsn focused on keeping her behavior moderated.

“What, precisely, do you do in Rhaagm?” she asked, her words slowly poured out of a rough burlap bag. “Do you also trap the skeletons of your dead? You failed to cover the topic in any of your history lessons. I am interested in the reasons for your coyness. It strikes me as deceptive, which I am sure someone as intelligent as yourself has already concluded.”

To her surprise, she had to slow down as Eihks almost came to a halt. He sifted the streets and buildings around them for something, probably people. Ktsn was about as sure as she’d ever been that they weren’t near any possible eavesdroppers.

“I wasn’t being coy,” eventually tumbled from his lips.

Ktsn’s nostrils twitched.

“Real estate,” Eihks said, not saying anything else for a few seconds.

She blinked, jaws slackening when he sighed and looked to the sky, then kept walking.

“Now, you know how I’ve been telling you about Rhaagm being a utopia? That’s all true, but there’s more to the story. There’s a term…”

The both of them came up beside a strangely long house. It was difficult to tell whether the bamboo composite dwelling was on the highest level of “poor” or the lowest level of “rich.”

“Sorry, we’ll come back to that,” he muttered.

Ktsn hung back a half-step or so as the doorway vomited forth a woman with oddly pigmented skin, lighter and darker in large uneven patches like… well, like not a few karkshes.

“You are Hudja, yes? Interested in dolls?”

“Yes,” came the cursory response, overtop of youngsters shouting up the house’s guts.

“Good; let’s make sure the details are all accurate.”

A silent sniff was all the reply he got at first.

“Strange creature you walk with,” remarked the woman eventually, standing in the threshold of the home. She stared at Ktsn with… not distaste, but apprehension, sitting one shelf above protectiveness. Her stare kept returning to Ktsn’s teeth. She might have felt uncomfortable if she wasn’t so busy with simmering resentful fury.

Eihks glanced over, and back down at the woman. His hands flattened against each other.

“I suppose you could say that, but also consider!”

A finger tapped just above one of his ears, and his grin spiraled.

“From her perspective, it’s you and I that are the strange creatures.”

Hujda’s stare transferred up again, her arms ceasing their murmuring quiet speech. One of her brood came running along behind her with a shrill squeal. After a moment, the little mouth grinning around a doughy fist became a little frown. Ktsn noticed how two small teeth barely crept around the little digits.

“Mam, it’s… a big Roofroof! It’s a big Roofroof!”

The child did a little dance with little feet, pointing at Ktsn while pulling on Mam’s leg.

“Yes it is – go see Roofroof, Musry; I think he wants to play with you,” Hudja replied, head craning a little bit down toward one shoulder.

“Can I pet big Roofroof?”

Eihks crouched down, so the kid’s neck didn’t snap meeting his eye.

“Listen to your Mam, now – she knows best.”

“Ahey!” said the human whose life had barely begun, taking a second to consider running over and patting Ktsn anyway. At mother’s urging, though, the wiggling shape tottered back into the depths of the house on smile-drunken legs. A moment later, there was another squeal, followed by the scrabbling of claws on something hard. A waddling quadruped shot past, pursued closely by a giggling flailing biped.

Ktsn had to admire the two-legged creatures for usually exhibiting excellent balance.

“You’ll probably get most of these by the end of tomorrow or the day after. My employer’s very quick, and very good at what she does.”

Eihks straightened his coat.

“Yes,” Hudja replied, not an iota of her manner changing and yet growing harried before the visitors’ eyes. The splotching of her face crinkled along long lines. “Get to it.”

A smile, a slow brightening of the eyes, and she turned around and returned to her life.

The visitors left.

“Was I supposed to find that funny?” Ktsn didn’t ask.

Eihks looked to the sky again, following clouds with his eyes. They wandered along, shaped like ewers and hands and mountains that beat each other with sticks.

“Sorry for the interruption. There’s a term, ‘post-scarcity,’ that some people historically used a lot,” he continued eventually. “It’s supposed to describe sufficiently advanced societies. The capacity to piece apart most particulate matter and reassemble it to specifications, universal or near-universal availability of some sort of artificial immortality, industrial processes that hoi polloi households can maintain without special difficulty, absence or heavy reduction of disease and hunger. By most standards, Rhaagm would have qualified for that category… well, much farther back than bears thinking about.”

She made an impatient sound.

“Bear with me,” he said through a sniff. “I’ve never had to educate a non-born-native of Rhaagm on this subject. Usually, my best explanations and persuasions have the benefit of prettying up on the editing table.”

They continued. Ktsn recognized the bridge where she’d looked down at Goeyren’s procession. Now, it was covered from one end to the other in multicolored streamers. Celebrants hurried across both ways. Some wore costumes, some carried bags, some played instruments. Most of them strolled happily, competitive in their jollity and making an effort to be seen being jolly.

“A major problem for us is that there’s no such thing as a post-scarcity society, because the idea of ‘want’ becomes conflated with ‘need’ in almost any context, given enough time. What do I need, exactly? I need the ability to sustain myself, yes. If that’s all, then I’m technically receiving my due so long as I’m in a sealed metal box that preserves my life and consciousness. Doesn’t need to be entertaining. Doesn’t require much work to implement with Rhaagm’s technology level, strictly speaking.”

He rocked his head over to one side.

“That’s hardly living. In fact, a lot of completely disconnected cultures consider that flavor of solipsism to be among the worst possible fates one can inflict on sapient creatures.”

Head to the other side.

“So your formula for ‘post-scarcity’ expands to include some sort of provisional stimulation, possibly companionship, and also a few specific paradigms that benefit the quality of the mind’s life. Of course, unless you want to cross the line of personality tampering (which hasn’t been in fashion for a LONG time), the formula only does this by providing the means whereby those needs can be met. You can’t be a guarantor of companionship, you can only guarantee to emplace services and standards so connections between people are possible. Thus, you’re now saddled with a wider scope of requirements. You can’t damn people to hell. Reasonable adjustment, yes… and in this case, morally sound.”

Suddenly he got agitated. His face stepped up to the border of the land of laughter, but never crossed over.

“One of the root problems, sadly, is that a lot of different people have differing ideas of what’s reasonable. Rhaagm’s home to literally more species than any physical person can tell you (except maybe the Jon’s Court and its subordinates), and more are getting introduced all the time. You can theoretically simplify or reach accord on ‘reasonable’ with things such as conjugation and cognition retraining regimens, but that’s something else on which people rarely see eye to eye.”

She snorted at him, her neck bending.

“Figure of speech,” he said. “Coming to a vaguely similar understanding of something, if not necessarily a common moral standard.”

They both stopped to watch a crowd of people dressed in darker-than-black clothing performing some sort of dance or rite. Each article of their garb had either green or red on its inside, colors darting away and back like stones hurled heavenward as their wearers twirled. It lashed solemnity and gaiety together in strangely suitable matrimony.

“That’s just the subject of abstract and personal matters,” Eihks resumed once the athletic display continued on its way. “When you begin taking into account physical or unique things that can’t be perfectly shared, like choosing which of two people is going to receive material assets in exchange for financial supply, then you’re feeding the fires of contention. So… imagine how pugnacious two groups can become if they’re fighting over something whose limiting parameters lie outside the control of BOTH arguing parties.”

He sighed. Meanwhile, Ktsn convinced her brain to shelve her emotive state. She was fitting together bits and pieces, and building an image that looked exceptionally poor to her. She thought she knew what he was going to say next.

“I was hoping to avoid this talk for a while yet, but here we are. Allocating spacetime to people has been a problem essentially forever. The magical truth is that the three primary powers of Rhaagm, Bequast, and Yrdky have means to expand their territories. Rhaagm is both the easiest and hardest of these to manage. They can accrete more districts at the borders of the city if they want – ‘they’ being an emulsion of politicians, true civil servants, business holders, and academics – but it’s dramatically harder with time.”

She felt her heart stumble.

“Your planet’s original property value is… the sort of thing a lot of my countrymen would do terrible deeds to obtain. That’s the chiefest reason I hope you managed to be convincing when you asked your people not to surrender their land.”

Eihks stared straight ahead, not blinking, not turning to either side. His hands gripped his forearms behind his back.

“Technically, the land your family now owns was originally held by other Rhaagmini.”

… what?

“Not your country’s land in and of itself, but major portions of the region your planet now occupies. That corresponding spacetime used to house many civilian and commercial interests, though it wasn’t as heavily folded as it is now. It’s something that my fellow citizens covet very intensely. The desire to regain it, despite the tremendous compensation they got for surrendering the property, lies in the territory of obsession. Maybe, eventually, you autochthons might be willing to reach some sort of permanent exchange of amenities and wealth for your countryside as the Rhaagm community keeps offering more and more generous deals. I hope not, though, because I doubt you’ll get it back if it’s returned to Rhaagmini ownership.”

It was like dear Rlgts had come to heckle her in the guise of a strange man, here on the beachhead of the unknown places in creation. What she’d thought so often in the past suddenly lost all its staying power.

So why did you not stay behind and help them to hold onto it? Why did you bring me away instead of arming me with knowledge and fighting the fight with my people? Why didn’t you tell me that I and my people either have to live with the sacrosanct property of others as spoils of political war, or surrender our… their… our homes?

As they continued toward a fork, Eihks directed his attention to one side. Down one broad thoroughfare, she saw a crowd, large even compared with the amoeba gatherings elsewhere in the city. She could vaguely make out a slow procession pushing through the throng, a mounted figure wading closer with an escort. A warbly announcement skipped over the crowd, rendered lumpy and mumbly with distance.

They started down the other route.

How could she be so happy about her future, yet so upset about her present?

A few nearby skulkers gave her their attention. Belatedly, she realized she’d spoken her thoughts aloud. Perhaps unintelligibly, but even across the language barrier it seemed a few locals suspected that her “noises” weren’t random.

One of them jammed an elbow into his associate’s prodigious core, and wheedled about the “funny Fanlilite mule” with the same sort of voice Ktsn might use to pass on a story heard secondhand and blackout intoxicated.

“Careful, please,” Eihks ground out.

At first there was sorrow, then shame, then annoyance, then outrage. She decided she’d had enough of listening to her companion for the day, and she began unlimbering her mouth to deliver a pointed upbraiding. She would also throw in a dissertation on the importance of passing along information related to a person’s dogma, in whatever shape. If he didn’t enjoy having her talk, then he could make up for it by doing more talking himself.

And then came the blow that cut her legs off at the ankles.

“I think we know each other even on the inside, by now. Not perfectly. But enough to realize you aren’t comfortable seeing harm done. Even imagined harm. Even – especially – harm brought about by things outside of your control. I did know, without a doubt, we’d come to this eventually if you started asking why Rhaagm’s rare dead are exported or recycled. We share that drive to discover, and I didn’t want you to stumble onto something painful before you were ready.”

They both stopped just beyond the visual range of anyone on adjoining streets, beside a building with a high-set splintery porch. Eihks cast about, making sure they weren’t watched. Knees whispering against his clothes, he levered himself groundward, leaned in. After a brief hesitation, he grasped her shoulder, and looked straight into her eye.

Ktsn hadn’t often been this near to him for any substantial duration. The hair slashes above his eyes thinned near their outer edges. An oblong scar marred the elliptical curve of his nose just before the halfway mark. His breath had a thin sticky-sour-basic whiff. It reminded her of the starchy cubed vegetables that had recently thickened their breakfast stew on occasion.

“It was Rhaagm’s people – some scientists researching on behalf of the Weeper… some politicians and moguls who formed a bloc to purchase the land and keep the nation’s conscience clean… and the agents acting on the directives of the Pursuant and the Jon – who forced your world into our mold. It was them. Do you understand?”

He placed his hand on the back of hers.

“It isn’t your fault. Even if you face terrible resentful jealousy for your good fortune, or even your bad fortune, it isn’t your fault.”

Yes. Yes, she did understand why he hadn’t wanted to dive down this avenue. She didn’t appreciate it… but she could accept it. It hurt, like a physician’s knife purging infection. Her resentment didn’t abate, but it shrank. She could put it aside.

“Thank you,” she said in her birth tongue.

He smiled, and it was happy and sad and regretful and hopeful and many other things all at once.

And she realized that life, whatever else it was and whether Gegaunli or some other power was responsible for giving it to her, was good.

“No,” he answered her. “Thank you.

Footsteps, intruding. On the other side of her, a man with big knees and elbows came wobbling onto their stretch of dusty road.

He wore a papery knotted headdress of green.

He wore a breechcloth.

He wore an open-mouthed stare featuring about as many teeth as Hudja’s toddling offspring.

This visitor saw the two of them, and a hand stabbed weakly in their direction. It wasn’t clear whether what he said at them was obscene, because there were about four times as many vowels as there should have been. Ktsn would have wagered the money she carried that it was, though.

“Ah, you’ll want to go that way!” Eihks told the man. “I think they’re giving away some beer down the street!”

He pointed toward the fork junction they’d just passed.

The man said something that could have been “Fat have we gargle marriage” before lolloping off in the proffered direction.

“Sometimes you miss the ability to get drunk, and sometimes you really, really don’t.”

Ktsn gave Eihks a look on the triangular border between skepticism, annoyance, and smugness.

“What?” he said, and he got a look of vaguely amused uncertainty.

The clattering of claws against each other sounded as loud and warm as the whole world.

Strange moments to cherish on this journey, she thought.

Then Eihks froze. His next words dropped slowly through the air.

“Hang… on. Wait. No.”

Before Ktsn’s eyes, he somehow both hunched over and got bigger. A creak as his neck switched sideways. He stared down the road at a fat little building of indistinct non-domicile purpose.

“No, it can’t be.”

The fat little building sat squished between two towering bodies. A garish-painted bamboo dwelling stood on the left, and on the right teetered an abomination of adobe and something like crumbly soft shingle. Short breezeways connected the structures. The neighborhood had been getting less reputable for a little ways back, but calling this the bottom of the barrel was an insult to barrels and bottoms.

“Here?” he grunted.

Those clawless hands of his dropped to his midline. He pointed with one of them.

“Well, I guess we don’t have to leave the capital at all this time.”

When he reached under the back of his jacket and pulled out that collapsed thing called Lusendrad, Ktsn knew that trouble had found them. When he turned back to her, he stood tall and staid as she’d ever seen.

“You remember how we were supposed to try and do some reconnaissance before taking action?” he snarled.

She gave a handclap.

The metal clack of ratcheting joints accompanied the staff-thing’s unfolding.

“It’s time to improvise.”

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